SIGNIS REVIEWS MAY 2011
DIARY OF A WIMPY KID 2
HUMAN RESOURCES MANAGER, The
LOST BLADESMAN, The
ORANGES AND SUNSHINE
QUATTRO VOLTE, Le
RAFLE, La/THE ROUND-UP
(US, 2011, d. Justin Winer)
It’s thirty years since Dudley Moore was the cheerful, alcoholic ne’er-do-well, Arthur, the New York billionaire. It’s thirty years since John Gielgud’s Oscar-winning performance as Arthur’s butler and nanny, Hobson. No reason, not to have an update.
Russell Brand. After making his name as a comedian, Russell Brand has been appearing as an actor in films as diverse as Get Him to the Greek and The Tempest. He gave his voice for the central Easter Bunny in Hop. Generally, he sounds the same, a distinctive British accent and tone that often can get away with humorous murder. He uses it again in Arthur, but there is much more in his performance.
In fact, there is quite an amount of nice romanticism and sentiment in this version of Arthur. Brand has no difficulty in showing the irresponsible and indulgent side of Arthur. But, he is also convincing in showing an underlying intelligence (which he hasn’t bothered developing) and the change from philandering nitwit to falling genuinely in love as well as showing a kindness to Hobson who (after her change to Prospera in The Tempest) is now played by Helen Mirren, Arthur’s devoted but not exactly no-nonsense nanny.
Arthur’s mother – a steely performance by Geraldine James – has had little time for her spendthrift son who embarrasses her no end. She offers an ultimatum: either he marry the ambitious Susan (Jennifer Garner) or be cut off from his inheritance. By chance, he encounters Naomi (Greta Gerwig), an illegal tour guide at Grand Central Station and is charmed and then falls in love. Will he marry and keep the money? Will Susan’s father (a gnarled Nick Nolte) threaten him with his electric saw? Could his mother ever change her mind? Could Naomi really return Arthur’s love?
Russell Brand is always good at one-liners or toss-away funny and ironic lines and there are plenty here to keep the audience amused and on-side. Helen Mirren clearly enjoys herself being strict, being indulgent, commenting waspishly on Arthur’s behaviour – and instructing him how to make tea with a teabag. Luis Guzman is Arthur’s amenable chauffeur (even to dressing as Batman and Robin and driving a batmobile). And the NYPD shows amazing tolerance and understanding.
Greta Gerwig has the difficult job of persuading us that Arthur is worth loving despite his fickle past. She does it very nicely and makes Naomi a pleasing, ordinarily down-to-earth character.
And Arthur’s drinking and resolutions. After a failed AA meeting where Hobson strongly but gently chides him, he offers non-stop comment on his progress.
And then, final credits and a new version of Arthur’s theme that won the Best Song Oscar way back then.
(US, 2010, Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman)
A documentary. What is a documentary these days? Is it an objective look at some event or issue? Try as the makers do, it will always have the point of view of the writers and directors? Does this matter? And, are the makers at liberty to ‘create’ some of the characters and events you will see? These are the kinds of questions that Catfish raises. And somebody nicely remarked on an IMDb blog that the film demands to be seen because of the excellent arguments you will have during the drive home.
And then somebody else remarked that it is the downside of The Social Contract. How does Facebook work? How valuable and real are on-line chat rooms? And how gullible have we become with all the information made available to us by Information Technology, swallowing everything like fish, hook, line and sinker?
Which means that we have to approach this story of online connections with caution and, perhaps, some scepticism.
Nev Shulman is a New York photographer whose brother and friend want to make a movie. When one of Nev’s prize-winning photos gets a response from an 8 year old in Michigan who has painted her own version of his photo, the flattered Nev follows up and becomes a regular communicator with the little girl (and her many paintings), her mother and her attractive and flirtatious sister, Megan. So far, so good for the social networks.
When Nev and co have to visit Colorado, they decide to visit Megan and surprise her. But, of course, it is they who get the surprise.
Caution with plot spoilers means that the narrative has to stop there and audiences interested will have to see Catfish in order to meet the family, get to know them and what the art work and the flirting all mean. This turns the film into more of a psychological study of the family – ultimately less dramatic than the first half of the film, but certainly interesting to those who puzzle over human nature.
So, a ‘reality’ documentary with more reality than anticipated – or less?
(US, 2010, d. Aaron Schneider)
One should not be put off or hesitate because of the title. There is nothing low about it. As Felix Bush, the solitary man at the centre of the film, says, ‘It’s time to get low’ and he means that he should get down to business.
This is a film designed for an older audience who appreciate fine characterisations and serious themes. It moves at a measured pace with a secret at its centre, something the audience is interested in discovering, which keeps them attentive. It is set in the 1930s in the American south.
The film opens with a long take of a burning house with a man aflame escaping from it. We have to wait until the end of the film and the revelation of Felix Bush’s secret to understand what has happened.
Robert Duvall, nearing 80 when he made this film, is Felix Bush. A bearded and gnarled old man who has lived apart from the local town for forty years. He decides that it is time to confess his guilt and shame for what he did those decades earlier. He will have a funeral party before his death so that he can attend and listen to the myriad stories that have been told, retold and embroidered over the years. He also wants to tell people what has kept him apart from them for so long.
Bill Murray is Frank Quinn, the mortician of the town (where people have not been dying lately), assisted by an earnest young married man, Buddy (Lucas Black). He welcomes Felix’s proposal and eagerly begins the preparations.
Felix is spruced up and meets after many years a friend from the past, Mattie, played by Sissy Spacek. He still cannot bring himself to tell her the truth.
After some decision hiccups, the party goes ahead and moves to a great speech from Duvall explaining what really happened in the burning house and his blaming himself for what happened and why. He asks people’s forgiveness.
For those who appreciate the story, the characters, especially Felix, and the situations and themes of responsibility, confession, atonement and forgiveness (although it indulges Felix a little in the final minutes), they will find it a rewarding film.
(US, 2011, d. Tim Hill)
This one is for younger audiences whose horizons for Christmas and Easter are bound by Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.
While one does not want to be too sanctimonious about it, it is still a great pity that we read surveys being done about children’s knowledge of biblical characters and stories and the findings that so many have no real awareness of them (a cultural lack even if religion is not involved). That being said, back to Hop.
While Santa has the north pole for his workshops, easter eggs are manufactured at, where else, Easter Island! Hop is the young son of the old Easter Bunny but would rather go to LA, where else, to play the drums. Off he goes and runs into, literally, slacker, Fred O’ Hare (no relation!), played with cheerful oomph by James Marsden.
This is one of those interactive films, animation and live action (like the director’s previous Alvin and the Chipmunks). Hop has his more than mischievous side (especially as voiced so well by Russell Brand) and causes Fred to miss appointments for jobs which his father (Gary Cole) is hounding him to get.
Wouldn’t you know it, but Fred’s ambition, since he was little and glimpsed the old Easter Bunny on his rounds, was to be, of course, an Easter Bunny.
Meanwhile, on Easter Island, a revolution is brewing. The chicks who fly the Bunny’s sleigh, led by the dominating Carlos, are being marshalled into protest and revolt. After some adventures, both Fred and Hop arrive on Easter Island, are tied up (fortunately, Fred is tied with licorice and makes a bite-through escape) but overcome Carlos and his engagingly dumb sidekick (sidechick), Phil, who is ground control for the sleigh but is easily distracted and the revolution comes to a literal crashing halt. Since both Carlos and Phil are voiced by Hank Azaria, they are both amusing characters and are a foil to Hugh Laurie who voices the Easter Bunny.
Sounds a bit better than might have been thought – and it is, though strictly for the little child within for adults and for the real children.
THE HUMAN RESOURCES MANAGER
(Israel, 2010, d. Eran Riklis)
Eran Riklis made a very moving story about Palestinian-Israeli? relationships, antagonisms and a fight for justice, Lemon Tree. This time his social concern takes him farther afield.
The manager of the title works in a large bakery in Tel Aviv. As the film opens, he faces a humanitarian and public relations crisis. A receipt has been found on the body of a foreign worker who was killed in a terrorist bomb blast. However, she had not been employed by the bakery for some weeks before her death. How does the owner of the bakery handle the bureaucratic complications? How does the manager handle the journalist (significantly known only as The Weasel) who sees a story with damning headlines and photos in the offing for his career? And how does the manager handle his family, estranged from his wife and promising his daughter he will attend her function in succeeding days?
Not smoothly is the quick answer.
A decision is made that the body of the dead woman be returned to her native Romania to be buried there. However, when the entourage arrives and has met the Israeli consul (with The Weasel who has succeeded in getting himself on board), a signature is needed. The woman is divorced and her ex-husband cannot sign. They track down the 14 year old son who is living on the streets after being kicked out by his father. He is full of resentment. He can’t sign. He is under age. The only solution seems to be to travel up country (through rather ugly and desolate landscapes and ageing industrial areas) to find the grandmother.
It is a road movie with a difference. The car with the coffin is not in the best condition. Police are authoritarian and forbid their driver to proceed because his licence is years out of date. Villagers are sceptical, if not hostile (including the grandmother) and the dead woman is Romanian Orthodox. In the final stages, the group find an old army installation and travel in a veteran tank.
The comic touches are bleak and ironic. The serious side is important in terms of respect for the dead as well as for the living. The human resources manager is a kind of Everyman who has to cope with strange circumstances, make decisions that he knows will not please everyone. And he has his own family life to deal with.
Mark Ivanar does not look like a Hollywood star. Rather, he looks like anyone you might see on the street. He engages audience attention and, finally, audience sympathy as he struggles with the changing situations and people’s moods and feelings. This is an interesting an unusual film.
(Canada, 2010, d. Denis de Villeneuve)
An important film. Incendies (Scorched) takes us into the upheavals and civil wars in the Middle East and some of the human and inhuman consequences that can baffle, even frighten, those of us who live comfortable lives. While the country is not named in the film, it is based on events in Lebanon, civil wars, religious wars.
Incendies was the Canadian entry for the 2010 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film (which was won by the moving Danish film, In a Better World).
Incendies is based on a play and there are many powerful dialogue sequences. However, the play is opened up cinematically, with a great deal of location photography (Jordan standing in for Lebanon) and local cultural atmosphere.
Initially, audiences have to keep their wits about them as the drama moves between two different time zones. A mother’s will is being read to her twin children by the lawyer for whom she has been secretary for eighteen years since she arrived with her children in Montreal. She has letters for them asking them to deliver them to their father and to their brother whom they do not know.
In the present, the film shows the search, first of all by Jeanne, and then by Simon, helped by the lawyer. Modern Canadians unused to the Middle East, go on a journey of discovery and new cultural awareness.
In the meantime, we see the past, from the 1960s to the 1990s, the life of the mother which turns out to be surprising to the children as they piece together what happened to her – and to us, because it is a frightening story. It is a story of family shame and denunciation and killing in the mountains of Lebanon. It is a story of adoption and the hard and unexpected life of an orphan at the time of civil war and atrocities. It is a story of a woman who receives and education but who takes a stand in the civil unrest and acts on it leading to an atrocious prison experience.
We follow the past story step by step as the younger generation pursue it, Jeanne with intensity, Simon unwillingly. Where it leads we did not anticipate at all though as it unfolds, we might suspect what happened – and hope that it didn’t. But it did.
The performances are persuasive. The writing of the play (the author collaborating with the film) has great intensity. The issues are important and raise our consciousness of events still being played out in the Middle East in a harrowing way.
(US, 2011, d. James Wan)
A reasonable drama (well, reasonable may not be the right word because of the intricacies of the plot, haunting and demons), but enjoyable for those who like this kind of terror film. It has its scary moments and some jumps but on the whole its atmosphere is eerie.
Writer Leigh Whannell and director, James Wan, learnt their original movie craft in Melbourne. What they are famous for (very famous) is that they did the first Saw film. For Insidious, they must have listened to the comments that the Saw series is too horrible and gory, because this is quite restrained (a few fights and struggles with the ghosts but no blood and gore). But, they know what they are doing, writing an effective thriller and employing lots of camera movement and angles in drawing the audience into the mood of the family anxiety and the atmospheric house.
When those in the know see the name of Orin Peli amongst the producers, the Paranormal Activity link will be made. Insidious has quite a lot of para-parnormal activity and, unlike the original film which posed as a documentary, this is a narrative fiction, no dates and times, no hand-held camera observing of the characters and their plight. In fact, this one offers explanations for the weird goings-on, the poltergeist activity and the haunting.
While a priest is called in briefly for some support when parents are alarmed at the mysterious coma of their son, and the characters say, ‘for God’s sake’, God is particularly absent. In fact, this is a very secular ghost story and even more, the family calls in a kind of secular exorcist and her technology team to get rid of the ghosts – which is rather different in plot from what we might have expected. And, a shock ending.
The film-makers also have the advantage of an up-market cast. Josh and Renai (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) and their three children have moved house and discover spooky things insidiously entering their happy family life. Their son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins) has an accident in the attic and goes into coma for months. The reasons are not as expected either.
Josh’s mother (Barbara Hershey) has also been having some frightening dreams and calls in her friend, Elise (Lin Shaye) and the process of ridding the house of the ghosts starts and ups the fright quotient.
During the opening credits the musical score is not insidious, rather the extraverted loud opposite, outsidious, perhaps. Subtlety is not required as the film goes on.
So, a pretty good haunting story for ghost hunting fans.
THE LOST BLADESMAN
(China, 2011, d. Felix Chong and Andrew Mak)
An initial piece of advice for someone who is not Chinese or who is not familiar with Chinese history: check with Wikipedia or some information site to find some detials about the central character and his place in the Chinese memory. Otherwise, the film might just be another martial arts period epic.
Actually, it is something of just another martial arts period epic. Other films have visited this era with more spectacle and panache (The Three Kingdoms, Red Cliffs). There is the expected costume, decor and production design. There are battles and special effects. There is a great deal of swordplay (not exactly play since the encounters are matters of life and death), designed and choreographed by the star, Donnie Yen.
But, Guan yun chang, the lost bladesman, is a central character in the history of these times. He has been remembered and the sources tell us that he has been revered by many as a deity. The Lost Bladesman is an opportunity to see him in his historical and military context.
The film opens with the quietly solemn ritual of his funeral. It then moves to flashback of his adult life and career as a professional soldier, coming back to his funeral at the end. The leader Cao Cao, who had tangled with, supported, and manipulated Guan, offers the key to understanding him. He says that there are wolves with lamb’s hearts and lambs with wolves’ hearts. Guan is a wolf with a lamb’s heart.
We see him in his service to several lords and the emperor who rely on him, betray him, use him. All the while, he wields his sword (and he is mighty with the sword) in loyalty to those who employ him and to accompany a woman in safety to an arranged marriage.
The film is quite episodic making it difficult to realise how many years are passing as well as to recognise where Guan stands in regard to emperor and generals and who is ordering his death and for what reasons. There is a welcome respite when Guan is wounded and spends some recuperative time in a Buddhist monastery.
For some decades now, Chinese directors, many of their world-renowned directors, have been involved in this re-visiting of history, kingdoms, wars and dynasties – which means that Western audiences can be overwhelmed by them.
(Australia, 2011, d. Brendan Fletcher)
The title makes it sound Australian. And it is.
It’s probably a fair thing to say that Mad Bastards should be seen by as many Australians as possible. It entertains, but it also reveals a great deal about aboriginal life in Western Australian communities in recent decades. (It could be seen in conjunction with Murundak, the significant musical documentary about the Black Arm Band, their concerts, their range of protest songs, and the narrative of life for indigenous people in Australia since 1788, the history, the stolen generation, political refusal of an apology and the final 2008 official apology.)
A distinctive feature of Mad Bastards is that the writer-director, Brendan Fletcher, spent a decade with the people of the Kimberleys, listening to stories, appreciating the oral tradition, collecting the episodes and fashioning a screenplay for a feature film out of these ingredients. He also has a cast of non-professionals – who are completely convincing in their dramatic performances. During the final credits, the main members of the cast are on screen being interviewed, speaking about their lives and their experiences, showing us how the oral traditions have been incorporated into the film.
While there are a few sequences in Perth, most of the film has been shot in the Kimberleys and in and around the town of Wyndham.
The striking opening sequence sets a tone. Some young lads make a firebomb and one of them tosses it towards a wooden building which goes up in flames. He stands mesmerised, watching it, but the camera highlights the anger in his eyes and face. His name is Bullet.
There are two other strands of the story which centres on Bullet (Lucas Yeeda in a performance that is impressive and convincing). The local chief of police is Bullet’s grandfather, Tex (Greg Tait – who is also impressive in the end credits’ interview and talk about character, criminals and police). Tex has brought up his grandson for his daughter, Nella (Ngaire Pigram, also worth listening to in the final interviews), who has been a single mother since Bullet was born and who struggles with drink and brawls. Tex is a good man, a powerful influence for order in the community. He points out that in the middle of ‘all the chaos and bullshit’ the community needs a strong person at the centre on whom they can rely.
The other key character is TJ, Thomas (Dean Daly- Jones, also impressive in the interviews which make us realise how much personal experience he brings to his role). TJ is Bullet’s father. After a prison stint, and being rejected by his mother in Perth, he travels north. He wants to see his son. He seems desperate to make a new beginning after all the years of absence and neglect.
The drama of Mad Bastards is TJ’s journey and struggle for some decency in his life and meeting his son as well as Bullet’s ability to cope with this father-figure in his life. And the drama consists of a slugging it out fight in the desert between TJ and Tex.
Mad Bastards tells a lot of the story as it is. The making and releasing of it, the dramatising of what is wrong, what goes wrong, and indications that making good is possible means that the film is actually one of realism and of hope.
(US, 2010, d. John Doyle)
Sinclair Lewis once wrote an important American novel about an ordinary American town – what better than to call it Main Street? This is not a version of Lewis’ novel, but it is in his spirit.
For 2011, this seems an extraordinarily ‘old-fashioned film’, ‘classical film story-telling’ if one prefers (with not a swear word or sex scene to be seen or heard). Yet, it is an interesting film all the way through. It has old issues and contemporary issues to explore. It has fine performances which hold the attention. It is well written and worth listening to. The writer is playwright, Horton Foote, to whom the film is dedicated. For fifty years and more, he has written fine films about the American south, adapting Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, writing 1918, On Valentine’s Day and Tender Mercies amongst many others.
Perhaps younger audiences and those who prefer life and movies at a faster pace may not be caught up by Main Street but an appreciative audience which values the American movie tradition with find it a worthy successor.
Behind the opening credits is news footage of earlier decades and prosperity in Durham, North Carolina. Much of it came from tobacco growing. Then we see the present. While there are tall buildings and offices, the centre of Durham is becoming run down. Young people want to move on. The town council laments that few people turn up for parades. The spirit of the American town is seen to be dying – or on the move away.
Then we enter into the lives of some of the townspeople. Orlando Bloom plays Harris, a young policeman who is studying law at night, in love with school sweetheart, Mary (Amber Tamblyn), staying at home for his mother (Margo Martindale). Meanwhile, Mary has a job in a law firm in Raleigh and goes out on a date with her boss (Andrew McCarthy) but when she is warned that he is married with children, she is upset and is fired, determined to leave for Atlanta at once.
In an old 1920s mansion, Georgiana Carr (a wonderful performance from a near 80, Ellen Burstyn), daughter of a wealthy planter, is thinking of selling her house. She relies on the help of her niece, Willa (yet another understated performance from Patricia Clarkson). But, she has leased one of her warehouses, to an engagingly upbeat businessman (the business is disposal of hazardous waste), Texan Gus (Colin Firth, Texan accent and all).
Action takes place over two days or so.
The issues are those of the past. Miss Carr lives in the past (even her vocabulary and style of speaking and manners) and has to let go. The issues are also those of the present. Gus lives in the present and future and sees great prosperity for the town in undertaking delivery and processing of the waste. He is clearly attracted to Willa who has already recognised that he is just like her former husband, expecting anything he puts forward to be as enthusiastically taken up by others as he feels. What are her feelings towards him and helping her aunt with the dilemma about the warehouse and her selling the house? The issues are also the perennial ones of young love and prospects of jobs, improvement and marriage.
The screenplay brings these stories together and builds up to several climaxes. With the hazardous waste question, we hear strong arguments for the industry developments and what improvements it can bring to a town. We hear the caution about the waste and about safety. Neither side can claim the moral highground.
As with Robert Duvall in Get Low, Main Street is a film for experienced viewers who bring their own lives and questions to reflections on what the film offers.
(Australia, 2011, d. Natasha Gadd, Rhys Graham)
Murundak means ‘alive’ in the Woirurrung language.
Murundak was also the title of a travelling concert in 2006 by the Black Arm Band. The band’s name derives from the Prime Minister, John Howard’s statement about not having a black armband view of history,
The band continues to tour Australia and this documentary film captures performances at various venues around the Australian states. The film offers opportunity for many of the members to perform individually. The band comprises:
• Archie Roach
• Bart Willoughby
• Dan Sultan
• Dave Arden
• Emma Donovan
• Gapanbulu Yunupingu
• Jimmy Little
• Joe Geia
• Kutcha Edwards
• Lou Bennett
• Mark Atkins
• Peter Rotumah
• Rachael Maza Long
• Ruby Hunter
• Shane Howard
• Shellie Morris
• Stephen Pigram
• Ursula Yovich
Their songs are protest songs from the past and from more recent times. Many have made their mark on Australian consciousness.
But, the film is not simply a selection of songs excitingly performed.
Murundak also narrates the history of indigenous Australia since 1788. There is voiceover information and commentary. There is historical footage (including John Howard’s speech and Kevin Rudd’s apology). There is a glimpse of Burnum Burnum on the coast of Kent taking possession of Britain on behalf of the aboriginal people – tongue in cheek but telling.
Many questions are raised, many of them the main ones like the Stolen Generation and the repercussions. However, one important question comes to the fore (also in the context of missions): when and how was the link broken for 19th and 20th century aborigines between them and their millennia-old heritage?
The performers speak genially and articulately. They value the songs. In recounting their history and life stories, the audience is impressed and moved – one would like to single out various singers but, then, looking at the list, they all offer a great deal that is worthwhile.
The release of Murundak coincides with the release of the feature film, based on oral stories of the Kimberleys, Mad Bastards, featuring the music of Stephen Pigram, one of the Black Arm Band. Both films should be on the Australian, must-see list.
ORANGES AND SUNSHINE
(UK, 2010, d. Jim Loach)
Oranges and continual sunshine were part of the enticing of young children to go to Australia from the United Kingdom from the 1940s to 1970. These children were orphans, children of unmarried mothers who had to give up their babies to save family shame, children of poor families who could not manage. There were thousands of them. The language used in this film is ‘deportation to Australia’. Once in Australia, they were taken to institutions, governmental and religious, treated harshly, in many cases abused, and grew up with little education and not knowing anything about their families.
The issues came up, especially in the 1980s, when so many of the children were young adults and feeling a deep need to know something about their parents and to contact them or relatives.
Margaret Humphreys, a social worker in Nottingham, was approached by a young woman to make a search. Margaret was given time for two years to follow through with investigations which took her often to Australia, at some sacrifice for her devoted husband and children, and at some cost to her own health. However, she persevered, set up a trust, approached governments, received more requests from the children than she anticipated. Governments were reluctant to investigate and charitable organisations and religious groups and orders found that scandalous behaviour on the part of their members was being revealed.
The British and Australian governments issued official apologies in November 2009, almost a quarter of a century after Margaret Humphreys began her investigations. She herself received a CBE in 2011.
The film, Oranges and Sunshine, is based on her book and official documents on cases.
As a film, Oranges and Sunshine is both moving and disturbing. Emily Watson embodies Margaret Humphreys, a local social worker who is asked to do more in life than she ever anticipated. Once involved, she cannot let go and experiences the pain of the children, their emotional neediness as well as verbal and physical abuse from those who resent the criticism as well as impediments from governments. Emily Watson plays her with a combination of British stiff upper lip and quavering heart rather than an out-there crusader. Richard Dillane gives solid support as her husband who gave her solid support in her work.
Several of the adults dramatise their memories of the past. Hugo Weaving, in a quietly moving and convincing performance, is a man who has longed to meet his mother, has failed in his marriage and as a father, discovers his sister in England and the truth about his mother. David Wenham, on the other hand, plays a cheeky lout of a man whose brash exterior covers his longing for his mother and who, after initial antagonism towards Margaret, becomes her ally.
The film was directed by the English director, Jim Loach, who has been quite prolific in directing episodes of many British television soaps and serials. His father is Ken Loach, whose films for over forty years have been part of the social conscience.
For audiences unaware of this history, the material might be shocking – another stolen generation. It was the subject in the 1992 ABC mini-series, The Leaving of Liverpool, and of a book by Sydney Catholic journalist, Alan Gill, Orphans of the Empire (1997).
(UK/US, 2011, d. Greg Mottola)
Why Paul? Well, back in the 1940s when the aliens came to Roswell, one of them crash-landed in Wyoming in the yard where a little girl and her dog, Paul, were watching. She rescued him from the ship but the US authorities impounded the alien and he got the name, Paul.
Sixty years later, he escapes and is finding his way back to Wyoming, to the mountain of Close Encounters to meet a space ship to get him home. He does look like ET more or less, though we don’t see him call home – however, in a flashback, we do hear him call Steven Spielberg in 1980 and explain that he should make a film about a stranded alien. He also claims that it was he who suggested Agent Mulder.
Paul is voiced in his cheeky, sardonic way by Seth Rogen. Paul seems not to have been isolated enough because he has absorbed a fair amount of US raunchy crassness and can be quite rude.
As you might tell, Paul is a spoof of science-fiction stories and movies.
It has been written by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who were able to spoof zombie films to great effect with Shaun of the Dead, and the police and sinister murders in a British village in Hot Fuzz. This time they have teamed up with American director, Greg Mottola (who made the Seth Rogen rude comedy, Superbad).
Pegg and Moran are Graeme and Clive, two moving-towards-middle-age-without-necessarily-leaving-adolescence-behind sci-fi geeks. They are on the trip of a lifetime attending a science-fiction conference in the US (where they meet their author idol, played by Jeffrey Tambor, who practically ignores them) and then go on the road to visit the sites of alien sightings and landings. People wonder about them and their relationship (not without reason and not without snide comment). But, off they go on a road movie, crashing into taunting rednecks’ car, and then encountering Paul who has crashed his car on the highway. Clive faints and finds it hard to accept Paul and becomes jealous of his friendship with Clive and with Ruth, the daughter of the owner of the trailer park where they hide for a night. But, they make friends.
Some Christian groups have taken offence at the portrayal of the owner and his daughter. They are rabid fundamentalist, she wearing a T-shirt with Jesus blasting Darwin with a hand-gun and denouncing evolution, and spouting anti-science, pro intelligent design, bible text fanaticism rather than argument. Clive, Graeme and Paul are not keen on God explanations. What makes this seemingly anti-religious pot-shotting more complex is that Paul has powers to heal and to raise from the dead which parallel the Gospels. Since the Gospels are part of western culture, it is not surprising that non-believers can resort to them for metaphors while they are critical of fanatical biblical interpretations.
This may offend some sensitivities – but, then, some friends who are not religious realised that they had not really noticed this as a key ingredient of the film as they watched it.
Meanwhile, back on the road, Men in Black are in pursuit of Paul, with orders from The Big Guy (unseen until the end of the film, though heard, when she appears as Sigourney Weaver with nods to Alien).
For Graeme and Clive this is a life-transforming experience – a bit less even for ardent fans.
LE QUATTRO VOLTE
(Italy, 2008, d. Michelangelo Frammartino)
Some years ago there was a French documentary about life on a farming property in the French mountains called La Vie Moderne/ Modern Life. A director met a family and followed them in their ordinary lives and in their work, often letting what the audience was watching speak for itself – though sometimes the makers asked questions which required an answer of yes or no which, when given, made them sound more inarticulate than they probably were.
Le Quattro Volte is in the same vein except that the film-makers tend to keep their distance, even in close-up sequences. There is practically no dialogue (though we do hear a soldier in Roman dress for a Passion Play procession telling the local dog to scat: ‘Via!). And no questions are asked of the people we see and watch.
Looking at some reviews and blogs, I realised that many viewers were bored, finding the whole thing tedious. But, the film is a cinema essay, with documentary touches and with poetic touches. And, if that does not appeal, tedium ensues. But, if it does, the film is a quiet immersion in the life of a small, mountainous Calabrian town.
For most of the first half of the film, we accompany a lonely goatherd, for whom no jaunty song will be sung. He roams the paths in the woods and the goats graze on the hillsides. He takes them home, milks them in the morning and distributes the milk. We go to his room, a rather monastic room. He visits the church and gets some dust which he stirs into his drink, hoping for some kind of cure or healing (he never tells us). He dies. He is buried – and, later, one of the goats gives birth. Clearly, the audience is invited to watch, to contemplate, to reflect.
We see people arriving for the Passion Play, the procession itself with Jesus and the Cross and the Roman soldiers, the townspeople following on to a distant hill up the road where we can discern three crosses.
There is also a local festival. A tall tree is raised in the square. Someone climbs it and gifts fall out of the tree. The tree comes down, is chopped into pieces. Some of the men of the town are involved in charcoal making and we watch and contemplate the process as they form the wood into huge smouldering mounds.
And, the contemplation ends. We have been visual tourists in the town, gazing down at it, admiring the views of the surrounding hills – and, depending on whether we responded well or not, that is that.
LA RAFLE/ THE ROUND-UP
(France, 2010, d. Rose Bosch)
Most audiences will find this a very sad, even harrowing film to watch. It is the story of the rounding-up of French Jews in Paris in the summer of 1942. The Nazis had occupied Paris (seen in news footage during the credits) and Marshall Petain, hero of World War I, was governing in Vichy, an anti-Semitic authority, pleasing the Third Reich.
The film focuses on a particular quarter of Paris and three families living there. While we can identify with these characters, they serve as showing us the range of people who were rounded up – although many Parisians sheltered the Jews and helped them escape so that the quota promised to Berlin was never fulfilled. The sequences showing the authorities and the Petain government are chilling and are interspersed throughout the film as are enactments of Hitler, both his rantings and discussions with Himmler and his relaxing with Eva Braun and being filmed on his holidays in the mountains, a stark contrast with what was happening in Paris.
The round-up featured recently in the moving Sarah’s Key although that film took the action beyond 1942 into the present (including the featuring of President Chirac’s acknowledgement of France’s shame for the events and the suffering). As with Sarah’s Key, the handheld cameras immerse the audience in the confusion and struggles of the round-up, in the homes with the brutal behaviour of police and military (along with some sexual menace) and in the streets where they were ‘following orders’.
The overwhelming section of the film is that where thousands of men, women and children, are hurried into the Paris Velodrome, with two days clothing and rations, and put into squalid and filthy situations (which the film does not spare us). The uncertainty is frightening as well as the dire prospects (which are what happens). There is a powerful sequence in the Velodrome, where people are trying to cope, some reading, some playing cards, the children being rowdy, old men praying, where the firemen come in and their commander is appalled and defies strict underlings in allowing his men to produce the hoses and provide water for the people – and advises them on how they can safely post the many messages handed to them.
While the three families that we have met in the quarter and identified with, the Weismanns, the Zygler’s (the mother is pregnant) and the Traubes , are in the Velodrome, our attention is drawn to the Jewish doctor who is trying to cope with the ordinary illnesses, the children with measles and chickenpocks, the dehydrated. He is played with a quiet devotion by Jean Reno. He is assisted by very few nurses. One devout Protestant nurse, Annette (Melanie Laurent) is assigned and exhausts herself with the constant work and care. The film shows respect to Christian help for the Jews with Annette, a priest who wears a Star of David and helps some to escape and nuns who bring food to the camps.
When the crowds are transferred from the Velodrome, they go to camps in the country and then comes the harrowing separation of men and women, the isolation of the children and the trains to the East – with the saddening final information of how very few (very few) adults and children ever returned.
The film does end with some hope and some reunions but they are desperately few. However, we experience a terrible story of extraordinary 20th century inhumanity which is both tear and anger inducing.
(US, 2011, d. Carlos Saldanha)
Rio is a lively animated entertainment that should reach across all ages. It is full of energy and colour (especially the opening with the range of birds, their plumage and their flight) and a nice contrast between the cold of Minnesota and the warmth and rhythms of Brazil.
The film has ecological undertones for the serious-minded with the critique of the illegal bird smugglers.
But, it is also quite funny.
Blu is a macaw who cannot fly. He is abducted by the smugglers and finds himself in the US, with a little girl called Linda who loves him like a brother. She grows up, runs a bookstore in Minnesota, and he is loved and pampered and has never had to fly. And he has adapted to the mod cons of the US.
When a scientist from Brazil tracks him down, he pleads with Linda to let him go back to Brazil to mate with Jewell, the only female of the species left. Linda is unwilling but does the right thing – and, of course, will find romance along with the adventure and the perils with the scientist.
In Brazil, the smugglers have not given up and before long, Blu and Jewell, chained together and not getting along at all, are imprisoned. So, the main part of the film is the captivity, the dangers, the rescue, and the repercussions of Blu’s soft American life and his lack of skills, especially flying (despite attempts of friendly birds helping him try).
So, there is plenty of plot – and there are plenty of comic touches with this mismatched odd couple of macaws.
There are also a lot of characters who are entertaining in themselves. There are the smuggling bosses and the dopey henchmen who really want to dress up and dance at Carnivale. There is Nigel, an evilly glowering Cockatoo, who is the heavy in the smuggling business. There are a whole lot of other birds who fly in and out of the story.
For a few moments, it looked as though we were going to see only the sunny, Copacabana and beaches side of Rio, but soon we are in the favelas and looking at the social problems of the city. An important part of the plot is how a little boy is the pawn of the smugglers, a reminder of the exploitation of children in the city.
While the animation is lively and bright (from the makers of the Ice Age films), enhanced by 3D, and the musical numbers are more than expected but communicate the verve of Brazilian rhythms (and Sergio Mendez is one of the producers of the score), it is the voice cast which is outstanding.
Many will think that Blu may have invented Facebook because he is voiced in his idiosyncratic way by Jesse Eisenberg, while a lively Anne Hathaway is the dominating Jewell. Jermaine Clement (from Flight of the Conchords, Gentlemen Broncos) is an imposing Nigel. Various birds include Jamie Foxx and Will I Am floundering in their wisecracking attempts to help, Jane Lynch and Wanda Sykes as two commenting geese, George Lopez as the friendly toucan, Rafael, who wants to teach Blu to fly. Leslie Mann is Linda, the bespectacled heroine who finishes up on a float in the Rio parade, and Rodrigo Santoro as the eager scientist.
SCREAM 4 (SCRE4M)
US, 2011, d. Wes Craven
Writing a review for a Scream film is like preaching to the converted and, according to box office results, their name is Legion. Non-horror fans will see the title and move on.
So. Wes Craven is a professorial-looking type who has been making horror films for forty years or more. He obviously loves the genre and playing with its conventions. Not only did he make the Scream trilogy, it was he who introduced Freddy Krueger to the world (allegedly named for a boy who bullied Craven at school) to give everyone nightmares on elm street.
It is over a decade since Scream 3. So, why now for Scre4m (which is what the title does on screen, transforming from Scream to Scre4m)? Well, for one thing, why not? But, what has interested Craven over the years is playing with the conventions, drawing the audience attention to them and both utilising them and poking fun at them. But, this is the particular sphere of Kevin Williamson, the writer for the original films and the writer for this one, a clever movie buff indeed.
Most of the characters here are horror movie buffs, the high school students who are wizzes at horror trivia, the heads of the high school’s movie club who hold an annual Stabathon marathon (the 7 movies based on the main character, Sidney Prescott, and what happened to her in the original Scream). Because it is the age of social networking, a Scream film of 2011 has to have internet broadcasting etc. So, there are loads of references to movies and stars (with a dying cop cursing Bruce Willis and the way he can survive police thrillers!) and lots of discussions about what the rules of horror films are and how they can be changed or broken.
Scream 4 is a very amusing exercise in horror cinema deconstruction for movie buffs.
The opening parodies the first film with murders of students who turn out to be watching a Stab film and discussions of the relative merits of Stab and horror before one girl dispatches the other (because she talks too much). We are laughing as the film begins.
For the fans, the main characters are here again (certainly looking a decade older too). Neve Campbell is Sidney Prescott, promoting the book which has served as therapy to get her over her Scream traumas. Former journalist, Gail Weathers (a still acerbic Courtney Cox) who wrote the original books on which the Stab series was based is not too pleased but is happy enough when there are more murders and she teams with the film club managers to solve the murders. Sidney’s publicist is delighted at the increase in murders and potential sales until, of course, she goes the way of the victims. David Arquette is still Sheriff Dewey, married to Gail and trying to cope with the increasing number of deaths.
This time, the central victim seems to be Jill, Sidney’s cousin (Emma Roberts) whom Sidney is at pains to protect – and there are plenty of suspects, especially Dewey’s deputy or Jill’s rejected boyfriend. (Unfortunately, this reviewer missed the main murderer completely! – which means that Willliamson and Craven were very smart with their clues and where they were drawing audience attention.)
Not meant to be taken too seriously (except when we are analysing genres and their rules), there are some frights, some screams, some red herrings, some suspense – and prolonged endings which we may not have been expecting either.
Scre4m will reinforce the converted’s faith.
(US, 2011, d. Luke Greenfield)
From a novel by Emily Giffen who wrote a sequel, Something Blue ... and at the end of this film, we read ‘to be continued’.
That should be good news for the target audience of Something Borrowed (and I don’t think it is a male audience unless they are accompanying wives and girlfriends). Men definitely take back seat in this one.
While Kate Hudson has top billing, this is really a Ginnifer Goodwin film. Kate is Darcy, an extravert and party animal off the page, the best friend since childhood of Ginnifer’s Rachel, now a reputable lawyer. The film opens with Darcy hosting a surprise 30th birthday party for Rachel. And, the initial complication? Darcy is engaged to be married to Dex (Colin Egglesfield) in 61 days. Rachel has had an unadmitted crush on Dex since study days (we are treated to a number of flashbacks to appreciate this) and he is not really over her.
Rachel tries her best but at times it is too hard for her. Dex might look the part, but he is really a coward at heart and dominated in his career, his impending marriage and his choice of home by his father who knows only how to control.
In the background is Rachel’s genial friend, Ethan, an aspiring novelist (John Kraziniski), played with some charm and fine one-liners (‘The Hamptons are a zombie movie designed by Ralph Lauren’). He is also being pursued relentlessly by Darcy’s friend, Claire.
Needless to say, Rachel can’t tell Darcy the truth. Dex can’t get out from under his father’s thumb to do anything to resolve the issues. Ethan goes to England for the editing of his book. Rachel visits him to make a decision.
Taking a cue from French farces, the ending has people hiding in other rooms and overhearing things and leaving their coats in the open so that truth discovery is inevitable.
Kate Hudson is perfect in her over-lively role (and can be rather wearying). Ginnifer Goodwin has to do the acting – but, if only Ethan could get her to make a decision before all the anguish. And, Dex, well good looks are certainly not everything.
The film does show the ups and downs of friendship between the two women quite effectively.
(Australia, 2011, d. Justin Kurzel)
Snowtown is based on actual events that took place in the northern area of Adelaide, Snowtown, during the 1990s, arrests made in May 1999 and later convictions. The central character, John Bunting, is considered Australia’s worst serial killer.
This reviewer was not in the country at the time of the arrests and trials and so the story was completely unknown – and all the more shocking for that. Audiences who know the story may find it repellent (and it is) and may not want to see the film (which is well made and serious with its repellent characters and crimes) or may take the opportunity to go behind the headlines and attempt to understand what went on and why. But, it is fair to say, John Bunting is a complex and puzzling character as is the hold he had over a number of associates as well as the young Jamie Vlassakis who was also arrested and is now in prison.
There have been a number of fine and intriguing films on serial killers, Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam and Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler and 10 Rillington Place (about the guilt of John Reginald Christie and Timothy John Evans who was wrongly hanged). Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (and the film and the TV version as well as the treatment in both biographies of the author, Capote and Infamous) come to mind, indicating that what one person could not do by themselves, if linked psychologically and emotionally with another, then all things, all horrendous crimes, were possible. This is certainly the case with those who followed John Bunting.
Snowtown is often ‘art-house’ in narrative (not always linear), in screenplay and dialogue (often elliptical and symbolic rather than realistic) and in the use of camera and editing. One might say that it is sometimes the equivalent of a free verse poem rather than the visual equivalent of a novel or a true crime story.
Snowtown in the 1990s is brought vividly to life, often by suggestions and allusions as well as the previously mentioned ‘poetic glimpses’ of places, people, poses, minute detail – even when the surroundings are rough, poor and squalid. Many of the characters in Snowtown would be referred to in some quarters with derogatory superiority as ‘trailer trash’.
We are introduced to the family of Elizabeth who has three sons, Jamie Vlassakis, and two younger boys. A neighbour has become friendly with the family, minding them at times while their mother works. It soon emerges that he is a sexual predator. It is this that seems to bring John Bunting to the house – the film is not strong on giving clear information or helping the audience to work out who the characters are who come in and out of the house and does not supply much by way of background story. We just have to take what is offered us by the film-makers, limited as it often is, and work on it ourselves.
John Bunting is genial and is welcomed into the family. He becomes a father-figure to the boys and takes over the household. At various times, a strange collection of friends turns up, at times people in the town gather to talk about the crimes they have experienced and their hardships. John’s leadership is accepted by all. The boys are devoted to him and Jamie comes under his sway.
One of John’s oddest friends is Barry, clearly gay and camp but who is also homophobic and has tracked down names and addresses of paedophiles in the area. John is clearly anti-gay – with a vengeance that becomes literal.
People begin to disappear. Jamie’s step-brother who has raped him is tortured and killed. Various people are recorded as leaving town saying they don’t want to be contacted. John has a system, which Jamie participates in, of benefits’ fraud by assuming the names of victims and cashing in.
Watching Daniel Henshall as John is both mesmerising and horrific. He is an evil man with a smile, a Iago in command, especially towards Jamie who is in thrall to him, unable to make his own decisions, taking refuge in his dependence which is an excuse for his own violence, especially in the killing which ends the film. Lucas Pittaway’s passivity is the perfect dramatic complement to Daniel Henshall’s control.
Snowtown takes us into a world of underprivilege where financial and emotional poverty can be exploited by a cruel but persuasive bully. It takes us into the world of sexual depravity. It takes us into a world of self-appointed vigilanteism where the perpetrators live with double standards about their own behaviour. And, dismayingly, it happened here.
(US, 2011, d. Kenneth Branagh)
Thor? Marvel Comics? Kenneth Branagh? Shakespeare it ain’t. But, it’s a reasonably enjoyable, quite expensive, matinee show in 3D.
A bit puzzling at the beginning if we are not familiar with the comic. We find ourselves both in the Viking times and in the modern era – we are told later, and shown, that there is a rainbow bridge between the two worlds (and many references to Einstein).
In the present world, we meet Jane (Natalie Portman), her co-scientist, Erik (Stellan Skarsgaard who, fortunately, comes from Scandinavia and is able to quickly fill in some Norse mythology background) and assistant, (Kat Dennings). They are investigating strange phenomena in the heavens in New Mexico (and speaking of alien visits, where else!).
Back in the mythological days, we see a huge battle and lots of close-up hand-to-hand combat as King Odin (Anthony Hopkins in full rhetorical style) is battling the evil frost-giants. He has two sons, Thor and Loki. They grow up as peace is restored and Thor (Melbourne’s Chris Hemsworth) is to become king. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) assures all that he is loyal (of course not). When Thor presumptuously leads an expedition against the frost-giants against his father’s wishes, he is banished – and, like Crocodile Dundee in New York – he turns up, puzzled by modern life, in New Mexico in the middle of a huge storm.
So, we have two plots for the price of one.
In the present, Thor, with some Viking gravitas and a fine, articulate baritone voice, is a mixture of courtesy, puzzlement, and enterprise, who can adapt to 21st century American idiom pretty quickly but who wants his emblem of strength, his hammer, back. A bit difficult because, the men in black (not so agreeable as Smith and Jones in this version) have confiscated all Jane’s equipment and papers and have sealed off Thor’s landing site. And Loki turns up in suit and tie to mock Thor and lie about their father’s illness.
Then we are informed, which is quite an interesting explanation, that Odin, Thor and Loki were real characters (from distant and cultivated planets) whom the Vikings took to be gods.
In the galaxies, Loki is up to mischief with the frost-giants. Odin is in coma. Thor’s warrior friends are finding loyalty to Loki impossible as he is now a despotic king, offending his mother (Rene Russo). So, the warriors cross the bridge and take on the Men in Black.
Don’t forget the romance as Jane falls for Thor.
The film may not have the oomph of some of the other Marvel Comics films, but it is exotic enough to be rather fascinating in a mythical kind of way, and amusing to watch as Thor becomes an earthling. There is a lot of action as Thor defies the American authorities.
It looks as though Kenneth Branagh was taking a sabbatical from Shakespeare and more serious ventures and enjoying the opportunity to direct a mega-budget American enterprise. He has a very accomplished cast. And Chris Hemsworth (take a bit of Brad Pitt, a little Heath Ledger and some Russell Crowe and stir) is a strong screen presence with a bigger career ahead of him. In fact, if you wait after the end credits there is a minute or so more with Samuel L. Jackson and Stellan Skarsgaard indicating that there is more Thor and more Marvel Comics in The Avengers, already filming.
(US, 2011, d. David Gordon Green)
You have to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy Your Highness. If it is pointed out that the screenplay is about half Princess Bride and half Pineapple Express, sprinkled with some Monty Python Jabberwocky medievalry, the mood thing becomes a bit clearer. Those who would like the Princess Bride spoofery may baulk at the stoner Pineapple Express language, bodily function humour and sexual innuendo and a lot that is not so innuendo. That is probably a useful bit of consumer advice.
David Gordon Green used to make rather serious minded films like George Washington and Undertow. Then he surprised his serious fan base by the mad hijinks of Pineapple Express. Now he joins with comedian Danny Mc Bride, who is credited with co-writing the script, though the director says a lot of the dialogue was improvised (and it shows both for better and for worse). Mc Bride sees himself and his character, Prince Theodorous, as a Middle Ages slacker who has ambitions but no drive, overshadowed by his text-book knight brother, Prince Fabious (James Franco enjoying himself), wanting to be kind without any effort. He is accompanied by a squire who is a mixture of misery and devotion.
The story is one of those courtly love epics. A demonic magician (Justin Theroux) has imprisoned a princess (Zoey Deschanel) and kept her under a spell. Rescued by Fabious, and acclaimed by the king (Charles Dance), she is about to become queen when she is re-captured. Fabious goes off to rescue her again and Theodorous is forced to go as well.
Because Mc Bride is the writer and the star, he gets to show cowardice and then to be transformed into a chivalrous hero (but setting the bar rather low).
Into the quest comes a warrior vowing vengeance on the wizard who has killed her parents. While Franco plays the prince as all earnestness and smiling goodness, the warrior is played by Natalie Portman as a well-educated and spoken amazon. Which means that the performances are a conglomeration which work on the whole but there is a lot of unpredictability. Toby Jones and Damian Lewis are also in the mix for unworthy motives.
Which means then that the humour moves from daffy to raucous, to entertaining parody to a great deal of ambiguous (and unambiguous) and ambivalent sexual jokes. Old style fairy tale it isn't.